Pondering the Prayer Gathering

The article below appeared last week, on March 11, in Haaretz.  It is republished here with that paper’s permission.

Pondering the Prayer Gathering

Ruminations of a participant in the Manhattan Atzeret Tefilla

The weather in Manhattan on Sunday – a few degrees above freezing – wasn’t as pleasant as Jerusalem’s a week earlier.  But that didn’t stop an estimated 60,000 Orthodox Jews from turning out to participate in an American counterpart to the mammoth prayer gathering that had filled the Holy City’s streets the week before.

Many American haredim live in communities far removed from New York, and thus couldn’t participate.  Still and all, an ocean of black hats stretched about a mile along, fittingly, Water Street, a major thoroughfare at Manhattan’s tip.  Traffic reporters were beside themselves, direly warning drivers to abandon all hope of entering lower Manhattan, and reporters in truck buckets high above the crowd shouted down to us earthlings that they couldn’t spy an end to the mass of humanity.

And, as was the case at the Israeli happening, a broad spectrum of haredim was represented.

There were Jewish businessmen and professionals from throughout New York and New Jersey, yeshiva and kollel students from places like Lakewood and Baltimore, chassidim of varied stripes, even including Satmar, a group that isn’t often comfortable with, and is seldom seen among, such broad efforts.

A large portion of the gathering site was set aside for women, of whom there were many, too, schoolgirls, seminarians and homemakers.

(Also represented, although in protest of the gathering, was the anti-Israel Neturei Karta.  A small contingent of its teenage boys, held back by police near the Staten Island Ferry, seemed to be enjoying themselves, waving placards, denouncing Israel and condemning those who walked by for not sharing their point of view.  The walkers-by just rolled their eyes and moved along to join the prayers.)

What united the supplicants was what united the participants in the Jerusalem gathering: the conviction that a dangerous line was about to be crossed.

That line, of course, is the modus vivendi in Israel since the state’s inception, which permits full-time Torah-students to defer the military service required of (most) other Israelis.  And the looming line-crosser is the Knesset legislation all but finally approved that would extend mandatory military or civil service to the haredi community and that allows, if mandated quotas are not met, for criminal prosecution of haredi conscientious objectors.

The law is generously sugar-coated, extolling Torah-study, phasing in its quotas over several years, insulating 1800 particularly promising haredi students annually from the draft and permitting others to defer service for several years.  But, to the haredi world, the sugar cannot mask what they see as its bottom line bitter taste: effectively making a student’s determination to study Torah full time a criminal offense, potentially punishable with imprisonment.

That fact is “deeply dismaying and profoundly shocking,” according to a statement issued by the American gathering’s organizers.  (Full disclosure: the organization I work for, Agudath Israel of America, was asked to provide its expertise in arranging the necessary permits, police presence and other logistical assistance.  But it was only part of the broader-based effort.)

And the purpose of the prayer gathering, the statement continued, was to let Israeli haredim know “that the Torah community in America stands with you…”  All that transpired, as in the Jerusalem gathering, was prayer and recitation of Tehillim.

Between the two events, though, something less rarified transpired, something in fact ugly.  Some enterprising fellow decided to produce his personal “official” video of the Jerusalem happening.  It was set to a pop-tune that hijacked the lyrics of the traditional “siyum,” or tractate-completion, prayer, contrasting the life of scholarly Jews with aimless souls who “sit around at street corners.”

“We arise and they arise,” the grateful prayer goes.  In the video, at the phrase “we arise to study words of Torah,” the image of a haredi studying appeared.  And at “they arise to pointless ventures,” politicians… and soldiers were depicted.  The insinuation (at least about soldiers) was deeply offensive to all feeling Jews, haredi ones included.  Normative haredim, even those who wish to be scholars and not soldiers, and even with their sincere belief that Torah-study protects soldiers and citizenry alike, don’t disparage soldiers.

And, as might have been expected, a “counter-video” subsequently appeared, using the same pop-tune and words, but with opposite depictions.

How often and how tragically are important issues hijacked by the small-minded, whether Neturei Karta or haredi-haters, would-be impresarios of this extreme or of that.  Having strong convictions doesn’t have to result in insensitivity, and certainly not insanity.

In a perfect world, every secular Israeli (even politicians) would respect those who sincerely embrace full-time Torah-study as a high ideal; and every haredi would not only respect the soldiers who put their lives on the line for the Jewish people but declare the fact at every opportunity. And Jews would seek, at most, to persuade, not ignore one another, and not try to legislate their lives.

But alas, our world is imperfect.

We can pray, though.

© 2014  Haaretz

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